Consolidation of schools rears its head again

opinions

February 11, 2010 - 12:00 AM

A report released Monday showed that Kansas could save millions every year by consolidating some of its 293 school districts.
Ouch, do we have to open that can of worms again?
Probably.
K-12 education consumes more than half of the state budget. If state spending is going to be reduced by any significant amount, the schools can’t be spared. And perhaps significant amounts of money could be saved through consolidation while raising the quality of education at the same time.
The report was made by the Legislative Division of Post Audit, the non-partisan state bu-reau that examines, from time to time, the way various state units function. Post Audit’s goal is to find waste and inefficiencies and point out ways to eliminate them.
Their look at the public schools included proposals to reduce the number of districts to either 266 or 152.
The first option would produce 50 fewer school buildings, 230 fewer teachers and administrators and save $18 million a year. The second, more thorough-going consolidation, would close 304 schools and reduce the number of teachers by about 1,500, cutting costs by $138 million annually.
The second option would be accomplished by eliminating all districts with fewer than 1,600 pupils.
That’s us, folks.
The schools in this immediate area are: Iola, 1,371 students; Humboldt, 519; Moran, 348, and Crest, 239. If option two were adopted by the Legislature, it is reasonable to suppose that those four districts would become one. (Or unreasonable, depending on your point of view.)
If that degree of consolidation were imposed, how many school buildings in those four districts would be closed? Perhaps standards would be set that would require a certain number of students to be enrolled for each 1,000 square feet to justify keeping a building open. The same approach could be taken to determine how many teachers would be hired in each building. One teacher for each 20 students for each class? A formula would be re-quired.

ALLEN COUNTY once had dozens of school districts.
Consolidation in the 1960s reduced those to three, but not without a world of pain.
But it is also true that teachers were required only to have graduated from high school, were paid only a pittance. Most were single women required to quit teaching when they married, which was often very soon after they first pick-ed up a pointer and began teaching the ba-sics to their neighbors’ youngsters.
That consolidation didn’t save much money. It did lift the quality of public education in Kan-sas to a much higher level.
Consolidation today would save money and could increase the class offerings at the middle school and high school levels for students now attending schools too small to offer foreign languages or laboratory sciences and to deal with the differing learning abilities among students effectively.
In a great many cases in Kansas, consolidation would also create serious logistic problems that could be solved only with imaginative technological alternatives to the classroom. Those situations would be most de-manding in the sparsely populated counties in the west. Many students there already are spending two hours or more each school day on buses. Consolidation would be practical in some of those counties only if students could do much of their learning at home, or in a bare-bones learning center through interactive television.
Would consolidation work to the advantage of Allen County students? Maybe not for those from kindergarten through grades 4-6. Maybe so for older students headed to university. Iola High School students already benefit enormously by taking classes at Allen County Community College in their junior and senior years. The experience keeps them challenged and moves them into university with a bundle of credits already earned. Consolidation might open that opportunity to more students.
Larger middle schools and high schools also could increase the number and variety of course offerings to students in those grade levels. They would also offer more secure careers for teachers in the sciences and other courses, which can be offered only when enrollments reach a certain level.

MONEY WOULD be saved by closing buildings, creating efficient class sizes and sharply reducing administrative costs. But there would be a social cost — just as it was perceived to be in the ’60s, when those who wanted to keep things just as they were thought that their neighborhoods would be destroyed and their children corrupted if the school houses were closed and their kids were bussed into Humboldt, Moran, Colony or Iola to go to class.
What those worriers failed to realize was that the world that made those one-room schools sufficient had long since disappeared. It vanished with horse-drawn plows, wagons and carriages and 120-acre farms that supported a family.
Today, something akin to that metamorphism keeps raising the price of a continued existence on rural communities while draining them of their people. And once again the schools are the last bastion of things as they were to fall.

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